In 2020 the European Club Association conducted research into what it called the “Future Fan”. A survey across seven countries asked 14,000 people about their interest in football and how they interacted with the game. The survey recorded that among all fans only 40% regularly watched professional football in a stadium. Meanwhile 51% said they played Fifa at least once a month.
This research caused a degree of consternation in the ECA, especially with its then president, Andrea Agnelli, who believed that “many traditional assumptions about fans need to change” and that the game may need to adapt to meet them. Within months, however, Agnelli’s thoughts had been rendered moot because he had been forced out of the ECA for embracing that most radical of changes: the European Super League.
For many, concern over the “future fan” was simply a cover for some of the biggest clubs wanting to abandon traditional structures in search of more money. But the ECA’s research was not inaccurate and the questions raised were legitimate. As football has grown into a global form of entertainment so those who call themselves fans have changed too. The majority no longer watch football live in person but digitally through a screen. Has the sport come to terms with that shift?
Certainly clubs know more about their digital fanbase than they ever did about those clicking through the turnstiles. “The most sophisticated clubs have data coming from a lot of sources; I’d say more than a dozen,” says Roger A Breum, the head of marketing for Hookit, which specialises in tracking the digital footprint of sports teams and their sponsors. “Each of the social platforms they’re on gives them individualised data, then you probably have a social listening tool that’s bringing you broad data on hashtags that your club cares about. You have a sponsorship tool like ours and you might have tracking tools too. There’s a whole suite of sports tech software a club could use.”
These tools mean that clubs know what messages and initiatives their fans are receptive to, what they are not and, in some cases, how strongly those opinions are held. “Sentiment analysis”, says Breum, is gleaned most cleanly from the comments under Instagram posts and from tweets. That’s where “the diehard fans are telling you how they feel,” he says.
This information is well understood by the clubs, whether it be through their own insight teams or reports commissioned from consultants. They use it to tailor the kind of content they put on Instagram, or how they might help their sponsors run more effective ad campaigns. But that’s where it largely stops: the information is there to help the club run as a business, and it stays on the business side.
“Historically there has been a gap between the commercial operations of the club and the sporting operations,” says Ben Marlow, of the consultancy 21st Group, which has worked with the Premier League and Tottenham among others. “I would still believe that to be the case. There’s an element of church and state.”
Marlow’s opinion is shared by others who work with and inside Premier League clubs. He also observes that building a club’s strategy around fan sentiment would not be a great idea, but says that a “marriage between sporting performance and commercial performance” is important and that “the two drive each other”.
Although sporting performance can be determined by league position, traditionally it involved making the fans happy too. Fans inside the ground, or “legacy fans” as they became known in ESL jargon, are less often the subject of customer research, their views on their club infrequently sought. But they do have the ability to make their opinions known directly to the footballing department, with the strength of their sentiment measured in decibels. There the link between results and enthusiasm is not always straightforward. At Selhurst Park Crystal Palace fans grew frustrated with Roy Hodgson despite mid-table security, while at Old Trafford Manchester United fans stuck with Ole Gunnar Solskjær to the end despite apparent underachievement.
Digital fans do not have the same mechanism for making their feelings known. Yet no one would argue that they are short on opinions. This is particularly true on Twitter, perhaps the place where fandom is most alive outside matches and a place in a constant state of fulmination. As one Premier League executive puts it: “You can feel sometimes that the mood online is very different to the mood in the stadium.”
Last year the journalist Dean van Nguyen wrote a taxonomy of one “extremely online” section of Liverpool’s fanbase, a type he called the “Twitter fan”. They were largely young, he wrote, obsessed with transfers, highly combative and persistently pessimistic. “Not getting what you want from football all of the time seems completely intolerable to them,” Van Nguyen wrote. He argued that similar groups existed in most clubs’ fanbases, something borne out by even the most cursory glance at a Premier League club’s hashtag.
The Twitter fan does not represent every “future fan”, but it would seem hard to argue that they are not precisely the demographic that clubs want to reach and with the levels of “engagement” that would put them in the highest category of digital supporter. Their support is vocal and dedicated but much of it is critical, with that criticism left unacknowledged by clubs.
Some of the criticism undoubtedly filters through, to players with an active social media presence and to other parts of the football department, including one former Premier League manager who in the latter days of his last job would obsessively check online comments the moment he stepped into the dressing room after a match. Other managers might choose to ignore the noise but have comments shared with them by friends and family, or their agent, anyway.
More likely, however, the frustrations expressed on social media end up in the ear not of the club but other supporters. Van Nguyen writes that Liverpool’s “Twitter fans” often end up turning on match-going fans and have developed a name for them: “Top Reds”. That term is used in similar online disputes between Manchester United supporters.
“You will be seen as elitist if you go to the games,” says one fan of a top-six club who travels home and away and also has a substantial social media following. “They do see us as the elite. If I speak out on issues that matter to match-going fans, be that ticket allocations, prices, games being picked for TV, the new fans do not give a shit. They do not care about these kind of issues. A lot of match-going fans don’t consider what they call ‘e-fans’ proper fans either. They think that if you don’t go, you don’t know.”
It seems inevitable that the importance of the digital fan to football, especially at the top level, will only continue to grow. But while the commercial opportunities offered by a new audience have clearly been identified, it appears the other direction in the relationship, the one that involves listening, has not. Match-going fans might argue it has been ever thus. Perhaps in that respect supporters old and new may share some common ground.